Is Obama Wise?
Apologies for the extended absence. I’ve been on the road talking about “Wisdom” and it’s been gratifying to see such large and enthusiastic crowds. We had more than 200 people in Seattle, 150 at Powell’s Bookstore (yeah, Portland!), nearly 100 at Stanford, and 200 people attended a sold-out conversation I had with neuroscientist Andre Fenton at the Rubin Museum of Art on March 24. Thanks to everyone who came out. And for those interested, Rick Kleffel of NPR affiliate KUSP in California has posted a pod-cast of our lovely one-hour conversation about wisdom.
Now, on to Obama.
In his life of Pericles, Plutarch tells the amusing anecdote about how the great Greek leader was verbally assaulted in the marketplace one day by a relentless citizen-critic. Rather than having the man sent off, Pericles endured his insults for the remainder of the day, allowed the man to follow him home, and eventually arranged for one of his servants to accompany the heckler to his own residence after dark by torchlight.
That story of cordiality in the face of insult came to mind when I read an interesting piece in the Washington Post this morning, describing how Barack Obama reads ten letters from the public every day, and how he insists that the people who screen his mail include letters from critics and detractors in the mix. About half the letters, Obama is quoted as saying, “call me an idiot.”
Obama’s leadership style in general, and especially since passage of health care reform, has led me to ponder this question: Is Barack Obama wise? As it turns out, a number of news stories in the past week or so have repeatedly hinted at qualities that echo the eight “neural pillars of wisdom” described in my book Wisdom.
In his New York Times column after health care legislation passed, for example, David Brooks stressed the role that Obama’s “sheer resilience” played in keeping the legislation alive. As readers of Wisdom know, emotion regulation—the ability to stay even-keeled in the face of negative events or adversity—is a hallmark of emotional resilience, which in turn is crucial to decision-making. It is essential for keeping focused on long-term goals, is clearly related to patience, and just as clearly derives, at least in part, from cognitive strategies originating in the prefrontal cortex.
Psychological qualities long associated with wisdom (including resilience) emerge even more strongly in a fascinating story by Ceci Connolly in the Washington Post last week that gave a behind-the-scenes account of how the White House pulled off the health reform coup after it looked all but dead in January.
In the piece, Obama exemplifies several wisdom traits identified by psychologists like Paul Baltes, Vivian Clayton, and Monica Ardelt: dealing with uncertainty (especially after the Scott Brown election in Massachusetts); re-framing the problem in search of an alternative solution (a White House official lauded Obama for “changing the narrative”); humility in the form of patiently listening to critics (Obama convened the bi-partisan health care summit against the advice of staff); and emotion regulation (despite monolithic Republican opposition, Obama by all accounts remained cordial, if feisty, in his conversations with opponents).
And if wisdom, as Clayton suggested three decades ago, involves an ability to reconcile deep cognitive contradictions, consider this take on Obama from Connolly’s story: “In so many ways since taking office, he had seemed to be searching for the right balance between two versions of himself: Obama the idealistic community organizer, and Obama the pragmatic president who could abandon core principles in the drive to pass a bill.”
Pundits have taken to lampooning Obama’s “cool and deliberate” style of decision-making (see Dana Milbank in the Post). But you could argue that George W. Bush’s “Blink”-style, seat-of-the-pants gut decision-making strayed far from wisdom, not least because his cherry-picking approach to knowledge acquisition almost doomed him from the start to bad decisions.
No one, including Obama, is immune to bad decision-making, but his philosophy of information-gathering, including those ten letters he reads every day, suggests he’s open to contradiction, criticism, and the kind of knowledge that, while sometimes unflattering, may still be crucially informative. If good decisions require the humility (yes, humility) of relentless (even courageous) knowledge gathering, then Obama has proven—at least on the basis of recent events—to be wise.
Coming attraction: When I return to the subject of wisdom and leadership, I want to revisit Barbara Tuchman’s fantastic 1979 lecture, “An Inquiry into the Persistence of Unwisdom in Government.”
Other things I’m thinking/reading/maybe writing about: the absence of wisdom in the medical profession, as it pertains to the Henrietta Lacks story; a somewhat different take on rumination and depression from the recent New York Times Magazine story; and some thoughts on the “afterlife” of decisions after reading Sheena Iyengar “The Art of Choosing.”
I’m also pondering the cultural blindspot in which we tend to view men (Socrates, Confucius, the Buddha, etc.) as wise figures, but less commonly confer that same distinction on women. I have my thoughts about why that is, but would welcome suggestions from readers as well, and am soliciting nominations for a Top Ten (or maybe Fifteen) list of the wisest women of all time.